“Believe me, Ellie, you get yourself a man, you’ll be the happiest woman in the world.” Lilly Jean extracted a tube of red lipstick from her gigantic purse and uncapped it. “‘Sides me, of course. Ain’t no one happier than me, and you can thank the Daddy Sheriff for that.” She ran the lipstick across first her lower lip, then her upper one before squashing her lips together.
Watching this from the breakfast bar, Bitsy was reminded of two thick worms competing for space on Lilly Jean’s impossibly small mouth. “How did she ever win all those beauty pageants she’s always yammering on about?” Bitsy murmured to Spank, who’d emerged from the kitchen with a dish towel slung over his shoulder.
“Be kind, Bitsy,” Spank said.
“Did the frying pan knock you in the head this morning, Spank?” Bitsy said. “This is Lilly Jean we’re talking about. The woman despises you.” She shook her head. “Ellie, quit fraternizing with the customers. I need you.”
Ellie looked up from Lilly Jean’s table and nodded. “Be right there.”
“It’s the beauty what’s inside that counts,” Spank said.
Lilly Jean’s beauty—inside or out—was hard to make out. She was a brassy woman, a woman given to heavy eyeliner and thick blue eye shadow; she was a woman who favored tight leather pants and fringed cowboy shirts. Sometimes she went so far as to wear spurs on her boots.
“I could give you a makeover before you go, Ellie.” Lilly Jean said now, teasing her hair with a pick. “Rub some blusher into them cheeks; run a little liner beneath your eyes; take that gorgeous hair out a’ that stupid ponytail you insist on wearing all the time an you’ll have every man on campus standing in line to introduce hisself to you. Sure shootin’ you’re going to go off to college and fall in love.”
“Ellie’s not going to have time to fall in love, Lilly Jean.” Bitsy left the breakfast bar and approached Lilly Jean’s table. “Ellie’s going to get an education. Are you ready to order Lilly Jean or haven’t you bothered to look at the menu yet?”
“Can’t she do both?”
“You get your degree, Ellie, then you can fall in love all you want. But right now, there’s no time for love.”
“No time for love?” Lilly Jean checked her teeth in a pocket mirror. “There’s always time for love, Ellie.” She glanced at Bitsy. “Don’t you remember the first time you fell in love?”
“I’ve never been in love; never had time for all that business.”
Ellie laughed and began clearing the table recently abandoned by Andee Miller and her son. “Bitsy Barnes, everyone knows you’ve been in love with Howard since time began.”
Lilly Jean hooted and slapped her knee. “Oh, my dear girl, you have so much to learn. Bitsy in love with that old stiff? I know Bitsy’s options may be a bit…” She paused and looked Bitsy up and down. “…limited, but, really, Ellie.” She shook her head and laughed again. “Howard? Even Bitsy here wouldn’t settle for the likes of him.”
Bitsy slapped Lilly Jean across the face. “You shut your mouth about Howard, Lilly Jean. He’s a good man, a better man than his father is.”
A red spot bloomed on Lilly Jean’s face. She turned to Ellie, eyes wide. “Well this is an interesting piece of news. Ellie, perhaps you do know something about love after all.” Lilly Jean narrowed her eyes at Bitsy. “Maybe I can marry him off to you; get him out of me and Daddy Sheriff’s hair for once.”
Bitsy turned and headed for the kitchen.
“You didn’t take my order, Bitsy!”
Bitsy crossed behind the breakfast bar, pushed through the swinging doors and headed for her tiny office at the back of the kitchen. She shut the door, put her head down on the cool metal desk and tried to forget.
There was a knock at the office door. Bitsy sat straight; wiped at her face. “Bitsy?” It was Ellie.
The door opened. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean.”
She shook her head. “You spilled no secrets, Ellie. You’re right: I have been pining after Howard; pining after him for more than twenty years. We were going to run away together as soon as we graduated from high school. We couldn’t wait to get out of town.”
Ellie’s eyes widened. She pulled up a chair and sat on it backwards.
“Howard was going to be an astronomer. I was going to teach English. We had it all figured out: The day after graduation, before Daddy Sheriff woke, we were going to sneak out of town and go to Wheeling to get married. Daddy Sheriff wanted Howard to go play college ball. He always thought staring at the stars was a waste of time; always thought his son spent too much time daydreaming and not enough time tackling.” Bitsy shook her head at the memory. Daddy Sheriff had always been hard on Howard; wanting him to get the football scholarship Daddy Sheriff hadn’t been able to land himself.
“Howard’s best friend—Jonathan and Annie’s boy—disappeared.”
Ellie shook her head. “Jonathan and Annie never had children, Bits.”
“They did. Jamie Fowler. Three days, we looked for him.”
“That day, Howard went funny in his head. While we scoured the town, while we walked hand in hand through the woods, calling his name again and again, “Jamie, Jamie,” Howard just sat in his momma’s rocking chair, staring out into space. Didn’t eat; didn’t drink.” Perhaps he felt guilty; perhaps he felt shock at the loss of his best friend; perhaps…Bitsy pushed the thought from her head. Howard had nothing to do with it.
“The day after Daddy Sheriff called off the search, Jonathan and Annie got a letter from Jamie, explaining why he left so suddenly; why he left without saying goodbye.”
“Bitsy, why are you making this up?”
“Ellie, you know you don’t cross Annie Fowler, don’t you? You know that beneath that sweet exterior is a woman you don’t anger?”
Ellie nodded; bit her lip.
“Just before he left, Annie and Jamie argued. Seems like all they did was argue in those days. Jamie was fooling around in school; raising all kinds of hell. Then he found a girlfriend and he settled down. Annie didn’t like the girl.” Bitsy laughed. “What girl is good enough for a woman’s son?”
“Annie isn’t like…”
“Annie went to the girlfriend; threatened her. The day they got that letter, Annie stood in the driveway and renounced her son. She cleared out his bedroom and hauled all the furniture to the dump. She forbade anyone to ever speak his name in her presence – or out of it. For all intents and purposes, Jamie Fowler ceased to exist that day. Tore Jonathan up to bits, it did.” Bitsy shook her head to clear the memories. “What’d that old bitch order, anyhow?”
“Where’s is she?”
“The girlfriend. Did she go too?”
Bitsy frowned, scratched at her arm. “I really can’t remember, Ellie. It was all so long ago. Don’t you ever let on to Annie – or Jonathan – that you know the truth.”
“I’m not so sure it is the truth, Bitsy,” Ellie said, as she walked out of the office.
Bitsy stared at the tidiness of her ordinary life: time cards neatly stacked on her desk; a pencil jar full of black pens—she’d never write in blue; envelopes in the drawer; a legal pad with an outline of next week’s order. Bitsy didn’t want to be this tidy; didn’t want to be this organized. She wanted the messiness of the universe. She wanted piles of books stacked here and there, each of them open to a favorite passage. She wanted a telescope set up in an apartment she and Howard shared. She wanted to paint famous quotes on the wall in bright yellow.
Bitsy’s graduation, long-anticipated was, despite the balloons and the band, beyond depressing: Two members of the class of 1994 didn’t graduate. One sat rocking on his mother’s front porch. The other was just a memory that weighed heavily upon everyone’s minds that day.
Ellie appeared back in the door. “Why didn’t you go Bitsy?”
“My mother’d been sick for months, but hadn’t owned up to it. She thought it she took enough vitamins; if she ate better foods, she’d be alright.” Bitsy stood. “She begged me to take over the diner. Her dream was to keep this diner going through generation after generation. But you want to know the truth, Ellie?”
“Truth is, I hate this place. Hate it with every fiber of my being. This place killed my dreams, Ellie. And she headed out of the office and picked up the silver coffee pot. She had half a mind to pour it directly into Lilly Jean’s lap.
This prompt was written in response to an Indie Ink writing challenge. Mera challenged me with "Write about the first time you fell in love." I challenged Diane with "Empty chairs and empty tables."
Labels: Fiction, Indie Ink